A referendum likely to come before Daufuskie Island voters this fall will determine how serious residents are about improving ferry service.
Members of the Daufuskie Island Council on Monday voted to move ahead with a proposed referendum that, if approved, would create an island-wide, special-purpose tax district and impose a property tax increase of up to 10 percent. The money raised by the district could only be spent for ferry service.
Aaron Crosby, chairman of the island council's ferry committee, said there are several ways the money could be spent, including a multi-stop service between Hilton Head Island, Daufuskie and Savannah with multiple round trips a day.
Supporters have already drafted a petition but haven't begun collecting signatures, he said.
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Josh Gruber, the Beaufort County attorney, said signatures from at least 15 percent of registered voters within the special purpose district are required to get the question on the ballot. With about 300 registered voters on the island, about 45 signatures are necessary.
State law requires all ballot questions be finalized by no later than Aug. 15.
If the measure makes the ballot and ultimately passes in November, the process would shift to Beaufort County Council to create an ordinance establishing the tax district, Gruber explained.
Supporters acknowledge the proposal could be a tough sell in a slumping economy. However, they say ferry service is crucial to economic development.
"The real kicker is, if you can convince people that this investment will make property values go up, if you can effectively wage that argument, all of a sudden you have an easier argument to make," said island council chairman Bill Greenwood. H said some properties have lost as much as 75 percent of their value during the recession.
Ferry service has long been an issue for the island's 400 or so year-round residents.
Haig Point Club members can ride a private ferry between the island and Harbour Town, on Hilton Head.
Non-members have access to a vessel owned by J&W Corp. that makes two round trips per day between the island and Broad Creek Marina on Hilton Head. Round trip tickets cost $4 for island residents and $28 for non-residents.
"I'd describe it as making the best of a bad situation," Crosby said of that service, which receives $100,000 a year in subsidies from Beaufort County taxpayers and a $50,000 grant from the state. The vessel leaves Daufuskie at about 8:15 a.m. and offers return service from Hilton Head at 4 p.m.
The county's contract with J&W Corp. for Daufuskie Island service ends June 30.
Morris Campbell, the county's director of community services, predicted an agreement would be reached that preserves ferry service after that date.
Attempts Tuesday to reach Wick Scurry, owner of J&W Corp., were unsuccessful.
Many details about the tax district would be ironed out only after it's created, including decisions about ferry destinations and the number of daily round trips. The amount of the annual tax assessment also would not be finalized until after the district was established.
Crosby said the assessment would be no more than 10 percent. At that rate, he said the district would raise about $500,000 a year for ferry operations.
The district would be governed by a five-person advisory board comprised of island residents appointed by County Council.
Crosby expects the community would contract with an existing ferry provider rather than purchase and operate a vessel, noting that at least one company has already expressed interest.